Legal loopholes and ineffective law enforcement have been a blessing for Kosovo gunrunners who have benefited from the authorities’ failure to address the problem.http://birn.eu.com/en/114/10/6647/
By Krenar Gashi in Pristina
“This pistol costs only 100 Euros,” says “Gagi”, a young gunrunner from Pristina, sitting in one of most popular cafes in town. “I can give it to you for 80…”
Gagi (not his real name) stops talking for a moment as an officer of the Kosovo Police Service, KPS, passes by. The café is just a hundred metres from the KPS headquarters, on Pristina’s “police avenue”.
“It’s cheap because it’s modified… the magazine and the barrel have been changed… now it’s lethal, it kills,” Gagi continues.
A Balkan Insight investigation reveals that the Kosovo weapons black market is booming; pistols are ubiquitous, brought in via smuggling routes from Serbia, Macedonia and Albania. Gagi is just one of the territory’s many gun-runners.
Along the same routes come gas-guns, which have a plastic barrel and a gas-filled magazine and which are converted into effective firearms at numerous small workshops across Kosovo and then sold on the black market at prices which even teenagers can afford. Those which are not snapped up by the domestic market are exported.
Balkan Insight also discovers that loopholes in UNMIK’s legalising on arms have facilitated the trade in illegal weapons.
Lax licensing procedures for hunting rifles have meant that Kosovars who want to keep a rifle at home can do so. Statistics vary but it is clear that a huge number of weapons have been legalised since 2001. The hunters’ federation puts the number at over 50,000 – but the number of real hunters among Kosovo’s two million people has never been more than 10,000, according to hunting associations.
Veton Elshani, a spokesperson for the KPS, told Balkan Insight that the police do not check the background of hunting weapons when they are registered because they are not required to do this under the current legislation.
“We assume the weapons were in Kosovo before 1999,” Elshani says simply. However, as Balkan Insight discovered, most of the weapons that have been registered since 2001 were manufactured after 1999.
The channels that were originally set up to bring hunting weapons into Kosovo from 2001 are now being used to import all sorts of weapons illegally, mostly hand guns.
There are around 400,000 illegal hand guns in the territory, according to one UNDP survey. UNDP found that more than 23 percent of Kosovo households wanted to acquire a weapon, the majority saying that this was to protect themselves and their families.
Kosovo has been administered by the UN since 1999, when a NATO air campaign forced the Serbian authorities to withdraw from the territory and ended a conflict between Milosevic’s forces and the guerrilla Kosovo Liberation Army, KLA.
According to the UNDP, “it is frequently the perception among Kosovo Albanians and Kosovo Serbs alike that members of the other ethnic group are well armed and that maintaining weapons ownership is important to sustain a balance of fear.”
Those who maintain this balance are the gun-runners, who are easily contacted via their frontmen, found in the many cafes in the old centre of Pristina.
Anybody want a gun?
Gagi sells hand guns, which he prefers because they are smaller and easier to carry than rifles. He can carry three at a time and walk around the city centre freely without risking detection.
Gagi told Balkan Insight that the once vibrant market for rifles has declined, but that hand guns are now being imported via the same channels.
“Most of the guns come from Serbia and Macedonia,” he says, though he adds that Albania continues to be a source.
A police officer, who preferred to be identified by his nickname, “Muja”, acknowledged that the arms trade is booming, not least because the territory’s borders are porous.
“Anyone would feel safe with one of these,” says Gagi, removing two small pistols from his belt when we got into his car. “They are so cheap even children can afford to buy one.”
“This one, ‘the six’, has a six-bullet-magazine. It costs 100 Euros but you can find it for 80,” he says, displaying a tiny pistol that can barely be held with three fingers.
“The other one is an Italian Beretta. It costs 200,” he continues.
Gagi claimed he could procure any sort of gun within 30 minutes. A shotgun costs 400 Euros, which is also the price for hunting rifles. Prices for Kalashnikovs depend on the country where they were produced. A Kalashnikov made in Serbia costs from 350 to 400 Euros, compared to 300 Euros for one made in Albania.
“The cheapest are Kalashnikovs from China. You can get one for 250 Euros in Pristina, but if you just cross over the border you can get one for as little as 50 Euros in Albania,” Gagi said.
The time of year also has a bearing on price. Prices rise steeply near the holiday season, he said.
“A 7mm bullet costs 5 cents in Serbia but it can be as much as 50 cents in Kosovo, and that can rise to a Euro at New Year,” Gagi said.
As most of the people in the Balkans, Kosovo Albanians have a tradition to fire in the air during the holidays as a form of celebration. New Year’s Eve is the most popular occasion when shooting can go on for hours.
The authorities do not hand out licences for hand guns with the same ease as licences for hunting rifles. Almost all hand guns in Kosovo are illegal, according to police.
“There are only 150 people in Kosovo who are licensed to carry a small weapon,” said Veton Elshani, adding that legal weapons are used mainly by bodyguards for VIPs.
Two smugglers we spoke to said modified guns were most in demand. “Toni” insisted that he does not deal in these models because they are “dirty” – being designed to kill human beings, but Gagi admitted that they are extremely profitable.
“For 40 Euros you can turn a gas pistol into a real one,” said Gagi, adding that gas weapons are similar to real guns and are produced in the same factories. They can cost as little as 30 Euros before modification if they are bought in large quantities.
“Gas guns in Kosovo are mostly from Turkey or Italy. People bring them here, modify them and then sell them. They are in such demand,” Gagi said.
“The smugglers buy these cheap gas guns and change the barrel and the magazine, turning them into real lethal guns with real bullets,” said one senior officer with the KPS, who asked not to be named.
In just two police raids in August 2007 more than 500 gas guns were confiscated by police, who believe the weapons were destined for the Kosovo market.
“They bring them in, ‘translate’ them and then sell them for higher prices, which are still cheap,” said Gagi, explaining that the word “translate” is the underground slang for the modification process.
Balkan Insight confirmed from several sources that there are numerous workshops in Kosovo dealing with modification of weapons, although we were not able to visit any of them.
The department of ballistics within the KPS could not comment on this issue, on the grounds that this could interfere with their ongoing investigations.
Gagi said many of the modified weapons are sent to Albania, after which they are presumably smuggled into Western Europe.
Let’s go hunting
Several weapon amnesty programmes have been launched in the UN administered territory since 1999.
Weapons poured into Kosovo during the 1995-1999 conflict, mostly from neighbouring Albania, where riots in 1997 resulted in military arsenals being plundered wholesale.
KFOR, the NATO-led peacekeeping mission in Kosovo, has confiscated substantial numbers of illegal weapons in numerous actions.
In order to deal with the problem, UNMIK enforced strict laws on weapon possession. The only people authorised to carry hand guns are NATO personnel, police officers and, recently, body guards of VIPs. No company or individual is licensed to import or sell weapons.
With regard to hunting and recreational weapons a licensing system has been in operation since February 2001, but the relevant law doesn’t lay out detailed procedures.
Alexander Borg-Olivier, head of UNMIK’s legal office, told Balkan Insight that the goal of the regulation was to license those hunting weapons that were in Kosovo before 1999.
However, police acknowledge that this has never been reflected in practice.
“We never checked whether the weapons were in Kosovo before 1999 or not. We found weapons that were made in 2003 and we still licensed them,” said “Muja”, the police officer who preferred not to be fully identified. “It’s a pity, but all this smuggling was stimulated by loopholes in the UNMIK legislation,” he added.
Borg-Olivier acknowledged that the legislation does in fact leave loopholes open that can be exploited by gun traders.
“I’ve sold lots of brand new rifles, made in 2002 or 2003 or even 2004,” Toni told us. “I can get you a brand new one for 400 Euros… it’s Turkish, a good one. You won’t have any problems to fix the papers as it is new and I guarantee it’s not dirty.”
Kosovo Interior Minister Blerim Kuci, a passionate hunter, admitted that his hunting rifle, which is licensed, was made in 2003.
Yet before such weapons – and a majority of the tens of thousands of rifles in private ownership in the country fall into this category – are registered, their owners must have broken the law. It is an offence to bring such weapons into Kosovo or to buy such weapons from someone who has brought them into Kosovo.
“The authorities are legalising hunting weapons without consulting us,” Qazim Krasniqi, head of Kosovo’s hunter’s federation, told Balkan Insight. “They are just giving licenses to everybody who brings a rifle to the police station, without checking the background and without checking the hunting skills of these people.”
Krasniqi said his federation was able to regulate its membership, which accounted for most of the 10,000 weapons in private hands before 1999. “These people paid for membership. They even had to pass a specific exam before becoming full members,” he said, adding that today anyone can claim to be a hunter.
Krasniqi expressed concern that UNMIK’s problematic legislation is damaging the image of Kosovo hunters and also damaging Kosovo wildlife.
Minister Kuci agreed, saying that the damage done to wildlife in the territory has been so bad that he has resolved not to hunt until 2010.
But human life has also fallen victim to the plethora of rifles and police acknowledge that the number of murders carried out with hunting rifles is considerable.
“The UNMIK law is encouraging gun-runners to bring in new weapons because they are sold easily and then just as easily licensed”, Krasniqi said.
However, those involved in the trade say that the market is no longer booming. “There was a time when everybody who came into this café wanted a rifle,” said Toni, who has been involved in hundreds of gun sales. “Things were good then, because people were buying rifles like crazy.” Now, he says, fewer people are interested in hunting rifles and most want to buy hand guns, a trade which, he insists, he is not involved in.
What do we do now?
Minister Kuci says his ministry is sponsoring a new law on weapons which should be adopted by the Assembly in 2008. However, Alexander Borg-Olivier insists that the existing law would be effective if it were respected. “Nobody is cleared to bring guns into Kosovo,” he says, arguing that the police and customs should do their job better.
He admitted, however, that “the procedures are more lax than they should be” and that “there’s a need for clarification that weapons that are clearly new and that have been brought in illegally should not be registered.”
He said his office will pursue this issue and will make changes in the legislation and the only reason they haven’t done this before now is that no one has alerted them to the problem.
Minister Kuci, however, says the problem lies with UNMIK, which could have amended the law quickly.
In the meantime, gun smuggling in Kosovo continues, and few appear to believe that new legislation will bring this well established trade to an end.